Implementing badges 1: adventures in drop shadows

I haven’t been particularly forthcoming about what I’ve been working on in the last year or so, because reasons. But since 2015 is the self-declared year of damn the man, here we are. What I’ve been working on recently is a proposal for the implementation of OpenBadges. Since Moodle now comes with a nice but rather full of implications little button to turn badges on, and since with great power comes great responsibility etc etc, it seems like somebody should be doing something about it. Turns out for here that that person is me. Since in the recent past we have been burned by merrily jumping on buzzword bandwagons without a whole lot of consideration, badge implementation needed a bit of thought behind it. And while I’m generally a fan of the cowboy forgiveness not permission approach on an individual level, I tend to agree with the need to not go off half-cocked institutionally. And so, documentation. The proposal itself is fairly dry and written for a lay audience, but the key part of it of interest here is the development of a badge taxonomy. Why a taxonomy, you say? Because if left to their own devices, people tend to jump straight to gamification and start using badges to entice students to participate in discussion forums. Which I have many feels about. Badges really have their niche in making the stuff that’s not visible, visible, not in adding bribery layers under the guise of gamifying. I’ve nutted this out a few times before, but TL;DR gamification bad, microcredentialling good. A taxonomy gives those who are none the wiser and those who read the gamification marketing guff and the ‘watch out universities badges will kill you’ hype something to work with to develop their own understanding of what badges can be and how they might work in their own context. Since every good taxonomy must have an Office-style crime against visual design (and everyone needs a nice printable *thing* for their wall and it’s nicer to look at than the written taxonomy table), the following is what I’ve come up with. A veritable cornucopia of drop shadows and gradients, and a very rough translation of Halavais’ genealogy of badges into usable higher education terms. The colour codes are a nod to @catspyjamasnz’s Moodle tool guide (getting rather vintage these days)  ‘good thing to do, not great thing to do unless you design it well, seriously don’t do that’ system. The guiding principle was essentially ‘what’s going to be relevant in a portfolio (backpack) for future employers etc?’. Nobody is going to care that you wrote 6 discussion forum posts in a literature unit 5 years ago – but people will care that you have demonstrated effective communication skills. Staff use is only one side of the story. A significant issue with badges is one of their largest target demographics is students, who often to subscribe to the marketing hype and think of them as gimmicky, non-serious things more akin to the stickers kids get for good work (do they still get stickers? Is that still a thing?). How does one go about changing this perception? Student-facing taxonomy? Bludgeon? Cross our fingers and hope? I’ve learned from past projects that students don’t respond well to a service created for a need they don’t realise exists. Perhaps even harder to convince are the professional learning set, academics who decry anything perceived to lack rigour. Currently filed in the ‘deal with it later’ basket, given people want to start using badges now and not after the wicked problems have been solved. Stay tuned for further adventures once we actually press the button and start using badges…

On screen

My toddler has her own iPad. Quelle horreur. I don’t normally write about parenting on here (although I have certainly been tempted; lack of critical thinking is just as pervasive in parenting as it is in education) but this one is somewhat relevant. You can be in the edtech community or be a parent or really anyone at all and constantly see ridiculous articles like this one doing the rounds. Technology for children, especially young children, is bad, screen time is bad, even when technology is good it’s bad if it’s used below a certain age. And parents who allow their children to use technology just use it as a babysitter to compensate for their poor parenting skills. Right? That sound you hear is absolutely no one ever being surprised that I beg to differ. Hannah is 20 months old and has had her own iPad for maybe 6 months now. It’s an old iPad 2 of ours, but it is hers alone and nobody else uses it. This was a very conscious decision. But forget the ‘kid using fisher price app on mum’s iPhone in public to shut them up’ trope, that’s not how we roll. Two fairly contentious points: 1. We do not restrict her access to it. She chooses how and when and how often to use it. Some days it’s a lot. We don’t limit it. It’s not a reward for anything else, it’s not a bribe, it’s not something to be taken away as punishment. It is hers to use as she sees fit, and to self-regulate her own use of it. And yes, before you ask, a 20-month-old is fully capable of making such decisions, even if they don’t look like we think they should. 2. There are no “kid” apps on her iPad. Ok I lied, there is one Hairy Maclary ebook thing, and iView has the child filter set*. But other than that, she uses ‘big people apps’. When she draws, it’s not in an insipid colouring in app, it’s in Paper by 53. When she wants to make noise it’s in Bloom or Pianist Pro or Garageband, not Giggle Gang. She “plays” Angry Birds. There is no reason to ‘dumb down’ the intellectual scope of what children engage with (obviously within appropriate parameters). So what does this mean? Articles such as the one I linked above would have you believe that I have a violent, developmentally delayed obese child. Instead I have an intelligent, creative, empathetic and gentle normal weight child with fairly complex problem solving skills and an astonishing vocabulary. I realise that a sample size of one is statistically invalid, but so few people (if any) actually approach technology use this way there are not many opportunities to extrapolate more widely. I watch my toddler teaching herself how to navigate and use features, solving problems,  making active choices on what show and for how long she wants to watch, making some pretty awesome art and music, and I question strongly a culture that demonises this yet endorses the passive consumption of children’s television (most of which is either ridiculously patronising or clearly the result of an acid trip – seriously, In the Night Garden, wtf even is that??). I don’t do it to be contentious, or because I like technology, or to “prepare her for [school/real world/zombie apocalypse]”. I do it because I’m not content to raise a passive consumer. I do it because critical thinking, exploration, problem-solving and self-directed learning are conspicuously absent from most of society. I do it because it’s only fair to let her engage in behaviours I model. And I do it because she loves it**. To forgo all of this on the basis of impassioned misinformation is incomprehensible to me, but until mainstream thinking changes it will be a long haul in the cowboy corner. *Everyone thinks this is so she doesn’t see inappropriate content. It’s actually so she doesn’t get prematurely disillusioned at the state of the world by watching too much Q&A. **Ok fine, maybe I like watching Charlie and Lola, a little bit.

Games, gamification and why we can do better

I was asked to do an impromptu lunchtime session today on a topic of my choice, which I thought would be a timely opportunity to unpack a particular bugbear of mine. And because I do so love an overworked allegory, I’ll tell you a story. People like cars. They buy them a lot and spend hours a day driving them everywhere. One day, Bill and Bob, who were refrigerator salesmen who had never driven a car, noticed that people seemed to like cars an awful lot and got a bit jealous of the success of the car industry. They thought if they made their refrigerators more like cars, people would like them more and buy more of them. Bill said to Bob ‘Gosh Bob, how can we make our refrigerators more like cars?’. Bob said to Bill ‘Well, Bill, it seems that cars have wheels. Maybe if we put wheels on our refrigerators they would be more like cars and people would love them’. So this is exactly what they did, and they spent a lot of time going to refrigerator conferences telling everyone about it and all the other refrigerator salesmen got excited and put wheels on their fridges too. Then everyone got all surprised when people did not actually want a refrigerator with wheels on it, and only bought a few of them for novelty value. You get my point. Gamification – that novelty “engagement layer” of points and badges smacked on top of completely unchanged content and materials – fundamentally misses the point of what games do, why people play them and the benefits we get from them. Especially when implemented by people who have never played games. Going further and shoehorning content into level structures or game models is no better (in fact arguably worse). You cannot take traditional content, -ification it and voilá, engagement. Shameless bribery is not innovation. If we’re really serious about pulling the benefits of gaming into education we need to knock the playing field flat and rethink everything. Take Angry Birds (I know I keep going on about Angry Birds, but it’s a good, solid, easily accessible example). When you first open it, you get this: What you do not get is a list of learning outcomes, a bunch of lecture notes and an assignment. They’re in there (learning outcome: able to utilise trajectory to inflict damage; lecture notes: help screen; assignment: destroy all pigs), but none of it is explicit and none of it is the primary goal of the design. When we use educational concepts as designing principles, we’re doing it wrong. Games design for one thing and one thing only – engagement. Rovio give not two hoots if you learn anything, they care if you keep buying and playing their games. Frankly, legislation and a culture of credentialing are the only reasons the education industry is even remotely competitive with the gaming industry in terms of dollars and seat time. Our obsession with counting and tracking learning shoots us in the foot when it comes to the type of engagement that games enjoy. I’m not saying that we should ignore the realities of the systems we’re working in, but we could be doing a lot better than just -ification with points and levels. S0 – how can we do better? Put the edu stuff down for a minute. Start with – if you were taking your unit (course/class/MOOC/whatever), what’s the most interesting thing you can possibly imagine that you would want to do? What would make you want to engage and keep coming back? Go from there, and then once you get to the end, then you can ask – did I achieve all my learning outcomes? Explore a narrative. Give people a place to explore and find things rather than prescribing. Use badges if you want, but use them for humour or to encourage exploration, not to bribe people to log in, read articles or post in forums. Lots of other ramblings, ruminations and cases in point here. And finally – Dinosaur Comics on the cars and gaming metaphor :D. http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=2587  

I just wanted to ask some people some questions

Yesterday I tweeted the following: I’m currently in the process of upgrading my masters to a PhD, the thesis of which is likely to be via publication of a series of case studies on projects. And the fact that ‘projects’ is plural means multiple ethics applications in order to collect data. The problem is that, because what I do is coming up with new education-related stuff, generally the only type of data collection I want to do is surveying people, interviews and/or social media data, all of which falls under the umbrella of ‘asking people what they think of things’. And because I only ever want to report the data anonymously, it’s about the lowest-level thing you can do while still requiring ethical clearance. But every single time I am still forced to wade through a form (which is arguably one of the world’s most poorly-designed) asking if I will be exposing people to ionising radiation, drugging people or researching on foetuses. Or perhaps even more amusingly, ‘keeping data in a locked filing cabinet’ – evidently they haven’t heard of the internet. Generally I would rather have dental surgery than fill out an ethics application. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And it’s a problem. I do a lot of stuff, at least some of which is pretty cool, but I don’t publish traditional papers very often. The fact that I would have to wade through an ethics application yet again just to be able to ask people what they think of what I’m doing in order to write a paper about it is a significant barrier. Red-taping research into the ground is not conducive to innovation or proliferation. So I’m proposing a certification system for those who work in low-risk humanities-type disciplines and predominantly want to conduct anonymous surveys – do an application once and get a green card for the remainder of your academic career. Then you’re free to go forth and innovate and get participant experience data whenever you need it, without having to explain for the 900th time that you are not going to be irradiating people.

Knowing who the Ramones are

I saw a tweet the other day lamenting that 90% of people who wear a Ramones t-shirt don’t know who the Ramones are. It struck me that this is a fairly apt metaphor for what goes on in (probably everywhere) higher education – projects instigated based on buzzwords by people who like wearing the t-shirt but don’t really know who the band is. I am all for being a cowboy about things and coming up with left-of centre ideas and being a ‘doer’. It’s what I do. But if you’re going to be a cowboy, you’ve got to know who the band is, and in a deeper sense than just wikipedia-ing them and listening to one of their songs. This is the problem I have with so many of the gamification projects that float around – they are instigated by people who have little or no functional experience with games, and if they did they would know that points and levels and badges aren’t what matter. I know that quite a lot of people associate me (wrongly, IMHO) with gamification, and it’s true that I’ve spent a lot of time working with games-based learning and designing game-style courses. However – when I first started to notice that game concepts might be a useful thing to bang on about, I didn’t jump right in and start setting up project teams on a whim. I spent a good year playing World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Angry Birds etc, and not just having a token walk around but playing more or less every day for an hour or two, getting to level 85, PvPing, working with a group of awesome kids to build epic things etc. And, perhaps most interestingly, I still do not have a single paper on games, GBL or gamification to my name even though it’s probably the thing I’m most widely recognised for doing. I’m not unsympathetic to the fact that there are time constraints associated with wanting to be a bleeding-edger. However the pace of higher education is such that there is time to work through concepts in-depth prior to implementation and the benefits of doing this tend to outweigh the benefits of being ‘first’. The thing about being a cowboy is that people have to trust you and respect what you do for it to work – and there’s only one way to grind your reputation.

Exploring badge plugins – WP & Moodle comparisons

As promised, this post is just intended to give a quick, rough comparison of the WordPress badge plugins I’ve explored and Moodle openbadge functionality. It’s mostly for my own benefit and isn’t intended to be any kind of comprehensive review. WordPress If you don’t want to dump any cash, as far as I can tell there are three main plugins for issuing badges in WordPress: WPBadger, BadgeOS and Achievements for WordPress. WPBadger This is the ‘official’ Mozilla one that issues OpenBadges. In terms of functionality this plugin probably has the least – you create a badge and award it manually. It’s simple and lightweight but has no ability to automate issuing badges (although this plugin offers a couple of simple options). It does, however, issue Mozilla badges which integrate with the backpack, which is probably the strongest point in its favour. It’s an odd balance between the most widely acknowledged badges and the least functionality. BadgeOS This is a nice, more fully featured plugin that has automated issuing functionality. It has more of a gamification slant as it has options for quests and levels, and it has a fairly nice suite of add-ons available, although not all are free. It issues badges via Credly, which does talk to your Mozilla backpack but it’s another step of remove. It’s probably the most polished of the three. Achievements for WordPress This, to me, is the most fully featured and exciting plugin. It still takes a more gamification slant, with points and challenges functions, but it talks to other WP plugins to offer far more options for unlocking achievements. It talks to Buddypress, Buddypress Courseware (a free LMS plugin) and WordPress eCommerce (which happens to be the ecommerce platform Coffeecourses uses). The list of available actions that trigger automated issue is still a little simplistic for my liking, but it’s still a wider feature set than the other two plugins above offer. However (and this is a fairly significant caveat), the badges appear to be standalone rather than integrating with a service like OpenBadges or Credly. Which is an issue if you are working with another system that does support these services and you want your badges to be universal and portable. Moodle OpenBadges functionality is integrated in Moodle 2.5 (docs here). As we’re still running 2.3 and I haven’t got round to updating my own rogue Moodle yet, I haven’t had a chance to play yet but from what I can see the implementation is fairly robust and flexible. The badges module integrates with conditional release and activity completion, which means that you have a fairly wide range of options to issue badges. Issuing is automated and administered quite well. You’re also able to issue badges at both the course and site level, which means you can do macrocredentialling (is that even a word??) as well as microcredentialling. For my money, which is none given this whole post is about free and open-source stuff, Moodle is currently the best option for working with OpenBadges in education. Unfortunately it’s not the best option for the things I’ve got set up that I want to issue badges. But in general, Moodle’s badge implementation has a much stronger focus on credentialling rather than gamification/engagement.